This is the first installment of a regular thisistheBronX film/TV review series by Bronx film reviewer and writer Adam McPartlan. Check back every Friday for Adam’s film reviews.
FILM REVIEW – by Adam McPartlan
June 7, 2019
Chernobyl: The Best Recent Mini-Series
It’s astonishing that the Chernobyl disaster occurred a full 33 years ago. Even more so is the reality that the world didn’t learn about the full scale of devastation until years afterwards. The destruction and suffering felt by so many was never fully realized because of a culture of lies, silence, and misinformation; that was the true Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union.
Chernobyl, HBO’s latest mini-series, is only five episodes long, but manages to capture the horrors of the event as well as the aftermath, showing a whole new generation the worst that can happen in a world of fear.
The show depicts the events out of sequence, beginning two years after the fact with the suicide of the lead scientist in charge of investigating what happened at Chernobyl. The show then goes back to the start, filming in sequence for the remainder of the series until the final episode. The series depicts the explosion, the call to the fire departments, and the ensuing battle with the fire.
After that, it shows the lead scientist, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) called to be on a panel to investigate the explosion. From there, it shows the investigation through the eyes of Legasov, project leader Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a fictional character created as a conglomeration of all other scientists responsible for uncovering the truth of Chernobyl.
Chernobyl then dives into the grit and grime of it all, depicting the horrifying look of radiation burn victims, the evacuation of nearby towns, and the extermination of every animal within the contamination zone. We also get a great look at all the workers who were responsible for preventing further catastrophe from befalling Europe.
The ending is a portrayal of three things: the hearing that sent the three men in charge of Chernobyl to prison, that left Legasov in glorified house arrest, and led to the eventual release of the truth. The audience also gets a closing few minutes of photos and videos with subtitles, filling in some more information about the event and those involved.
The acting in the series is top-notch. Stellan Skarsgard leads the way, portraying possibly the only man in Soviet authority with a conscience. Harris and Watson more than hold their own as well, showing the internal conflict between saving your life and doing the right thing no matter the cost. As good as their performances are, it is the minor characters that really drive the plot. The actors who play the soldiers enlisted in the culling of radioactive animals, mostly pets, bring a great amount of heart and soul to their performances. This serves as a wonderful juxtaposition to the those playing the three men in charge of Chernobyl, all of whom lack any moral compass. Normally, shows that tackle real-life events lean on the performances. In spite of the great acting, this is not what makes the show truly beautiful.
Writing / Direction
The writers and directors crafted this series using more than the five senses. The show-runners understood the gravity of the topic, and wisely chose to handle it with care and respect. They read the source materials and committed to making this show about the real people, events, and human cost of Chernobyl. The focus is kept intimately on the people directly associated with the event and their actions, and this focus is heightened at every turn thanks to the music of Hildur Guonadottir. Most of her longer pieces, like the one that plays as the images from Chernobyl roll at the end of the series, resemble the music from a funeral mass. This is an excellent choice by the composer, as it serves as a sign of reverence to the victims of the explosion.
While the music is a large part of the success of this, the creators’ decision to use silence in new and creative ways beautifully conveys an air of solemnity to the production. The trick to using the absence of dialogue in film and television is finding ways to fill the silence, whether with ambient noise or striking visuals. At the end of every episode, the audience is sent away with striking images and sounds; at the end of the first two, no music is played over those images or sounds. We are left, instead, to sit with the harrowing events we witnessed. When the second episode concludes, three men are sent into the power plant to deal with the elevated water levels. The show ends with the camera flickering along with the flashlights, dying due to the high concentration of radiation. The last thing we hear are the panicked breaths of the three men. At the end of the first episode, we see the cloud of radiation begin to spread and reach nearby towns. Guonadottir does not have a piece playing here, nor is there dialogue for what seems to be two minutes leading up to the closing. All we hear are the people chattering in the background, unaware of what approaches, and the thud of a bird hitting the ground, dead of radiation poisoning, an omen of the horrors yet to come.
The silence acts as a catalyst for the show. The quiet fills the screen and demands the audience pay attention to the proceedings. With each use, it takes the form of “a moment of silence,” allowing the directors and actors to gather themselves and remember what they’re doing and why. It also works, subliminally, as a constant reminder that the silence of the Soviet government is what caused the explosion in the first place. It is in the silence that we are told to wake up and never sit idly by when we see people doing the wrong thing. This is the true message of Chernobyl.
Adam McPartlan is a graduate student in the Sports Broadcasting Program at Sacred Heart University. He’s a life-long Bronxite with a deep love of film, television, and writing.